Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang (France/Germany/Turkey/Qatar, 2015) and Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (Ireland/Canada, 2015) have had great success on the festival circuit and in popular consciousness. The fictional films have led me to reflect on the diversity of cinematic representations of sexual violence.
They not only share this similar theme but also a generic crossroads between the art cinema of contemporary auteurs and light-hearted early childhood or coming-of-age stories.
The directors I’ve researched in the former camp aim to fully immerse spectators in the horrors of sexual violence, quite apart from the gratuitous excess of the horror genre. These art cinema films are nevertheless unrelenting, and brutally graphic, in their representations.
Their possible value, as films, is in their ability to hopefully generate intense discomfort in their viewers and, from that discomfort, challenge them to reflect upon violence in the real world. There is thus no room for comic relief or playfulness.
Mustang and Room accomplish something quite different. Mustang tells the story of five orphaned teenage girls who live with their uncle in rural Turkey. After a neighbour spies the girls frolicking with teenage boys, the uncle increasingly bars their access to the outside world.
Rather than deal with the girls’ burgeoning sexuality or risk having them “sullied” by boys, the uncle arranges marriages. As an almost side-note to this problem, the film shows a scene or two of the uncle raping one (and then another) girl in the middle of the night.
The film is narrated from the perspective of the youngest girl, Lale (Günes Sensoy). She is perhaps no more than 13 and tries to understand marriage, sex, and family through voiceovers.
Although the film jumps freely amongst characters in time and space, we have access to her thoughts alone as she recounts the story after her and the second youngest escape their prison, during the latter’s forced wedding, no less.
With Lale’s occasionally humorous voiceovers and minimal comprehension of sex, customs, and her sisters’ erratic behaviours, the film becomes cheery in the spaces between sexual violence and weddings.
The sisters also frolic amongst themselves. Indeed, the occasional use of soft-focus cinematography and the digestible narrative trajectory deemphasizes the horrors and brutality of imprisonment, forced marriage, and familial rape. Further, the youngest girls resolve their problems by fleeing to their former teacher’s home in Istanbul, a luxury that the characters in contemporary auteurs’ films rarely enjoy.
Room is divided into two parts. The first narrates a few weeks in the life of Joy (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay). They appear to be trapped in a small room with all the necessary amenities for survival.
As the weeks unfold, we get a clearer picture of how they arrived there and who they are. Joy was abducted seven years prior, at the age of 17, and subsequently gave birth to Jack two years later, a result of her nightly rapes. By the time we meet Joy and Jack in the narrative, Joy has tragically come to accept abuse and rape because her captor (Sean Bridgers) pays the electrical bills and brings them weekly nourishment.
Similar to Mustang, the story is told through the child and his occasional voiceovers. Once they escape “Room,” as Jack quaintly names the space, the second half depicts the mother and son’s recovery and reintegration into society.
Joy’s father (William H. Macy) can’t bear to look at his grandson and Joy is overwhelmed by reporters and interviewers. Her attempted suicide is another one of the horrors of the story.
By affixing the narrative to Jack, the film curiously mixes serious subjects and light-hearted romps. Spectators would never find occasion to laugh in Catherine Breillat’s features, for example, but our young lad entertains us with imaginary friends, toys, and quirky voiceovers.
Further, when the mother and son revisit Room at the end of the film, Jack provides the story a sense of symmetry and completion by saying “goodbye” to every item left in Room, the opposite of his “hellos” to the same objects at the beginning of the film.
Joy whispers her goodbye to Room too, an indication that her psychological struggles and problems with social reintegration are nearing their end.
Mustang and Room anchor their narratives in cheeriness to a degree that hopefully doesn’t misdirect spectators from confronting the global phenomenon of familial rape, abduction, spousal rape (Room nicely played with this idea – her captor provides justification for his actions because of his status as provider), and the difficulties individuals have in recovering from them.
My criticisms aside, Mustang and Room mark a key moment in popular consciousness: they are by readily available on the big screen and are accessible in terms of representation and style (Mustang is rated PG and Room 14A).
I commend the films for navigating this terrain of accessibility and difficult themes. What the films lack in more honest representations of the horrors of sexual violence, they make up for in the appeal to a wide audience.
Perhaps because of this, Room and Mustang received Oscar nods for Best Film and Best Foreign Language Film, among others.